It was shortly after 11 o’clock on a brisk Friday morning in North Philadelphia.
Folks at the Martin Luther King Jr. Senior Center at the corner of 21st Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue were carefully listening to safety tips from city officials at the center’s annual Senior Citizen Expo.
Front-and-center stood Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, speaking with mannerisms the one-time school teacher picked up while teaching in the School District of Philadelphia.
“I’m a former school teacher, and feedback is very critical to me, and so I would give that a C-plus for feedback,” she joked to the room of more than 20 senior citizens after receiving a somewhat unenthusiastic response to her introduction.
But that day for Brown was not necessarily a laughing matter.
“I’ve experienced a lot of sadness when seniors call our office and they’re desperate and hungry for help,” she said. “So we get a chance to relieve some of that unhappiness by going to them right where they are.”
The four-term Democratic councilwoman is a regular speaker at the expo, which features advice on issues from fire safety to information on veterans groups and the Office of Emergency Management.
The event strikes a chord with Brown.
“On a personal level, my sister and I are taking care of my 81-year-old mom,” she said. “I know … how important it is to make sure that they (senior citizens) are cared for.”
Brown was born in 1952 in Sumter, South Carolina. She moved to Philadelphia and attended high school in the city before earning education degrees at Penn State. Shortly after graduating, Brown returned to the city to teach in the school district.
In 1982, she served as a committee person for the Third Division of Philadelphia’s 24th Ward, marking the beginning of her career in politics.
She eventually developed a passion for politics, helping out on numerous campaigns, including Wilson Goode’s mayoral campaign.
“I was a great volunteer,” she said.
In 1991, she was hired to serve as legislative director for then-state Sen. Chaka Fattah, later becoming community affairs director for state Sen. Vincent Hughes. It was time spent working in Pennsylvania’s state capital seeing women, and African-American women, not fairly represented, that solidified her belief to run for public office.
“The picture was as follows: 50 state senators, 46 did not look like me, two were African-American and two were women,” she said. “I learned very early on that if you’re not at the table as a woman, then you’re on the menu. And if you’re on the menu, most often those issues on the menu impacting women … are not in our best interest.”
In 1999, she began life as a Philadelphia city councilwoman, elected as an at-large member.
Since her first term, Brown used her passion for fighting for women working towards a piece of legislation known as Women on Boards, which required city contractors to disclose company information on gender, race and geographic data of board members and executive staff.
As a former school teacher, she said education is very important to her. Brown worked with then-Mayor John Street to create the Fund for Children, an initiative requiring the Phillies and Eagles to donate $1 million each for children’s programs in the city annually for 30 years.
Brown also focused on healthy lifestyles throughout the city. She helped draft legislation requiring chain restaurants to label menu items with nutritional and calorie information.
“There are so many issues impacting women, children and families and small businesses and building projects and community development projects,” she said. “There are a myriad of unlimited issues that we look at every single week.”
Her healthy and busy lifestyle, perhaps, comes from her dancing roots.
For a time, Brown embarked on a career as a professional dancer. She earned a spot as a member of the Philadelphia Dance Company in West Philadelphia, also known as Philadanco.
“Next to becoming a mother, that was probably the happiest time of my life … where I got the chance to live my dream as a professional dancer,” she said.
Then after eight years of dancing, she became a coach – doing what she says she loves most, teaching.
“Until 1999, I danced professionally,” she said. “When the body gets old … you can no longer dance – you teach.”
Brown’s chief of staff has experienced a similar type of coaching from Brown since she was 15 years old.
Katherine Gilmore Richardson first met Brown as a high schooler, at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, where Brown returned to her alma mater to speak to students.
Richardson was drawn to her message and decided to meet with her and talk. She eventually scored a position with Brown’s staff and worked up to her current position as chief of staff.
“She’s a very kind-hearted, genuine person and really wants to see young people do well and I appreciate her investing in my career, in my life, because if it were not for her, I would not be in this position,” said Richardson.
There have been bumps in the road, too. In 2013, the city’s Board of Ethics approved a settlement agreement with Brown and her fundraising committee to address campaign finance violations. Her staff declined to comment.
Brown has used her 17 years in City Council to work with other council members.
Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the city’s 2nd District, is one of these members. Christopher Sample, Johnson’s chief of staff, has known Brown and worked with her on initiatives for years.
“Sometimes development in Philadelphia moves so rapidly that the small businesses don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of that, and she makes sure that when she is at the table, she is talking about those issues,” said Sample.
One of these issues, Brown said, is bridging the gap between the city’s isolated senior citizens and agencies trying to help make them aware of potential safety problems surrounding them.
“Every time she comes here, she gives us a lot of vital information, about programs and about things that they’re doing to help the seniors,” said Clint Pettigrew, a senior citizen from North Philadelphia.
Pettigrew served in the Vietnam War and said it can be tough to be a senior citizen and veteran.
“A lot of times, they (politicians) kind of forget about us,” he said.
Bobbie Toller has attended the expo for a couple years.
Toller has lived in North Philadelphia for more than 50 years. She, too, was happy to see Brown at the expo again, and had a direct message for the councilwoman.
“You always supply us with good suggestions,” Toller said. “You’re always doing something good to help the community.”
Brown’s mindset, right now, is toward the future.
“There are a few additional pieces of legislation that I’d like to see passed by the end of the year,” she said.
The former school teacher also has her mind set on publishing the two children’s books she said she wrote.
Back at the Martin Luther King Jr. Adult Center, the councilwoman didn’t forget to remind the senior citizens to head to the polls as the election season winds down.
“Make sure you show up,” she said. “Take 30 minutes or 40 minutes out of your busy day and walk to the polls to do what so many people died for, that we would have the right and the privilege and the honor to have a voice.”
– Text, video and images by Taggart Houck, Francesca Ruscio and Connor Humphries